I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this Topical Issue matter. As someone from the Clones electoral area, I am delighted to be in a position to discuss the Ulster Canal and the importance of this project to the Border region, in particular the section from Lough Erne to Clones, the first stage of the restoration project. There has been significant progress in recent weeks, with planning permission granted for the project north and south of the Border. I was pleased by last week's announcement by the Northern Ireland Minister of the Environment, Mr. Alex Attwood, MLA, that the planning application to restore the canal from Quivvy Lough to Gortnacarrow and on to Clones had been approved. This followed last month's approval for the southern part of the project. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, stated that the approval of planning permission would be a significant milestone for the canal project. It is important we build on the progress.
The Ulster Canal is an important flagship cross-Border project that will bring many benefits in terms of tourism. We have seen this at first hand with the arrival of the canal to Ballyconnell and Belturbet, contributing significantly to the vibrancy of both towns. The town of Clones and the surrounding area were impacted upon by the Troubles. The building of the canal has given hope to many people in difficult times and its arrival is awaited with great excitement. Indeed, the project can be seen as a beacon of light for the people of Clones at the end of a dark tunnel.
The restoration of the Ulster Canal is a tangible North-South project that is testament to the commitment to peace and reconciliation in an area that was savaged by the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In this regard, I was delighted this week to hear the Tánaiste confirm during his visit to Stormont Castle that the Government was focusing on achieving a €150 million PEACE IV package for Northern Ireland and the Border counties during our Presidency of the EU. If such a funding package is secured, serious consideration should be given to ring-fencing some of it for the Ulster Canal project. I would welcome the Minister's opinion in this regard.
It is important that authorities North and South continue to work together to ensure the project's progress. I raised the issue at the inaugural meeting of the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association. From those discussions, it is clear that the project has widespread support.
In light of the fact that planning has been approved, I encourage the Minister to ensure the project is raised by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste with the First and Deputy First Ministers and put full square on the agenda for the next meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council.
The project is constantly on the local political agenda. My colleagues and councillors for the Clones electoral area, the mayor of Monaghan, Councillor Hughie McElvaney, and Councillor Ciara McPhillips, are present in Leinster House today. This is a project that is very close to their hearts and one on which they continue to work hard at local level.
The Ulster Canal project has cross-party support. Clones Regeneration Partnership, Clones Town Council and Monaghan County Council have done Trojan work together with Waterways Ireland to promote and progress the development of the canal project. Only today, I received an invitation to a conference on the Ulster Canal project which is to be held in the Creighton Hotel in Clones later this month.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, for taking the time to visit Canal Stores in Clones some time ago where he confirmed his and the Government's continued commitment to the project. The challenge for us now is to build on significant recent progress. I look forward to hearing from the Minister in that regard.